The Oregon Social Learning Center studies the impact of violence on relationships

Oregon Social Learning Center
Oregon Social Learning Center

The Oregon Social Learning Center studies violence and relationships over decades

interview by Mackenzie Wilson

The Oregon Social Learning Center is dedicated to using scientific research to help strengthen relationships in children, adolescents, families and communities. Using data collected from analyzing subjects over short- and long-term studies, the Eugene-based nonprofit helps make connections between the way people interact and their social and psychological well-being. The center is in the midst of a two-decade study revolving around young men and their romantic partners. We spoke with Dr. Joann Wu Shortt, a senior research scientist at OSLC, about the impact of the study.

Why does OSLC focus on studies surrounding relationships?
Relationships matter across the lifespan. We seek close proximity and contact with others, which promotes our well-being and safety and helps us cope with stress. The family remains a central relationship context that shapes our development, and difficulties within relationships can signal developmental risk.

OSLC is in the midst of a long-term study that’s assessing young men and their romantic relationships. What’s the significance of this study and when did it start?
The Oregon Youth Study-Couples study began more than fifteen years ago, when the OYS men were young adults, to examine the couple relationship quality, specifically intimate partner violence, between these men and their romantic partners and spouses. This study is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal examinations of physical and psychological intimate partner violence that has been conducted to date. Our recent work involves the children of the OYS men and the children’s biological mothers (even if the couple has separated), to examine the impact of child exposure to intimate partner violence and parent-to-child aggression on
child adjustment.

How do you think the data collected from OSLC’s research can help people improve their own relationships?
Although intimate partner violence has long been recognized as a complex and significant public health problem, the existing intervention programs have demonstrated limited effectiveness in reducing intimate partner violence. The OYS-Couples study increases the scientific understanding of the developmental pathways, risk factors and relationship processes involved in intimate partner violence in order to inform prevention and intervention efforts to effectively reduce intimate partner violence and the costly physical and psychological consequences for couples and their children.

How does OSLC select people to be a part of a long-term study?
At enrollment, the OYS participants were from at-risk (by virtue of living in neighborhoods with relatively high rates of juvenile delinquency) and lower socioeconomic backgrounds and in the fourth grade at local public schools.

What has been most surprising about the study?
Our approach helped us provide evidence that a significant proportion of physical and psychological intimate partner violence in nonclinical young couples was bidirectional or mutual, with partners aggressing against each other, which has increased the recognition of intimate partner violence as a public health problem that involves both men and women, rather than only men. More injuries occur in couples when physical intimate partner violence is bidirectional. One of my most important papers from this project provided critical information on the course of intimate partner violence and indicated notable decreases in levels of physical intimate partner violence across adulthood and higher stability in intimate partner violence for men who stayed with the same partners relative to men who changed partners. Intimate partner violence may be prevented by addressing the behavior of both partners and relationship patterns, such as coercion and escalation in the context of conflict.

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